Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?

Too much bride, not enough Bollywood – A review of “The Bollywood Bride”

I took advantage of the holiday sales to buy a bunch of books from Kobo, an online store that specializes in e-reading. One of the books I purchased was “The Bollywood Bride” by Sonali Dev.


I’m about to tell you all about this book, but I want to start by saying that I came in super enthusiastic about this book. I am not Indian, but I have had many Indian friends over the years and that’s given me the opportunity to learn a little about Indian culture. I’m not an expert, obviously, which was part of why I was excited to read this book – given that it targets a non-Indian audience, I figured I’d learn more about India and Indian-American culture through the story. I was also excited because Sonali Dev is Indian – she grew up in India, traveled the world, and now lives in Chicago. I always get pumped for women telling their own stories, especially women of color. Here, I figured, was a chance to read a story of Indian-America through the eyes of someone who is actually Indian-American.

Spoilerwood, a love story

Without giving too much away, “The Bollywood Bride” is about an actress, Ria Parkar, whose family lives in Chicago. Ria was a frequent visitor as a child, but since achieving stardom over the course of a decade she has avoided returning to the U.S. As it turns out, there is a tragic backstory behind all this – she was forced to abandon the love of her life because she fears that she has inherited a serious mental disorder from her mother, whom she has secretly put up in an asylum in England.

Ria returns to the U.S. under duress to attend her cousin’s wedding, only to be reunited with her long-lost love. He is still bitter about her leaving him, and although admittedly she was pretty cold about it, this was 10 years ago. Get over it dude.

It’s clear from the outset that Ria and her love, Vikram, will end up together in the end. It is also clear that whatever fears she has about her mental health will be assuaged so that the happy couple can dance off into the sunset in true Bollywood fashion.

This is where the story starts to lose me. Personally, I don’t see why Vikram is so obsessed with Ria, other than that she was his first love. Ria is, of course, beautiful per her description, and she is depicted as polite and loving. She also has some artistic ability and talent as an actress. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the selling point is here. She has a tragic backstory, but that’s not exactly a personality trait.

(For the record, Vikram is also a little too perfect – fiery, passionate, but also kind, intelligent, and altruistic. In that sense, they’re a perfect match.)

I also don’t understand why Ria doesn’t at least try to seek treatment, to see what she can do about the illness she is convinced has been passed down to her. Her fear that she will inevitably end up like her mother, violent fits of psychosis included, is a driving force behind the story – it is the reason she leaves Vikram and the reason she resists his attempts to reconcile. And yet she does nothing to actually address it.

To her credit, Dev addresses this point. When word gets out in Bollywood that Ria has an “insane” mother, psychologists call on her by way of the press to receive treatment. They are clearly trying to get their 15 minutes of fame on the back of this most personal part of her life. However, it begs the question: why doesn’t she get treatment? I think this part of the story would have been better served if Dev had spent some time addressing this point. What kind of social stigma exists in India for those seeking mental health treatment, and how would that have impacted someone famous like Ria? What options are available to her? Could she seek treatment outside the country in secret? It would have been more satisfying, in my view, to have Ria struggling with trying to treat herself (doing research online, taking supplements, doing yoga, praying, paying a doctor exorbitant amounts of money to pretend she has a liver problem or something) than having her simply accepting her “fate” and making herself and everyone around her (Vikram included) miserable in the process.

Fortunately for Ria (and for me, because if I want to be depressed I’ll watch the news), there is a happy ending. When the Indian tabloids reach her family in America, Vikram jumps on a plane to see her, first going to Mumbai and then to England, where Ria is visiting her mother for the first time in a decade. Vikram assures her that he loves her no matter what, and that he’ll stand by her as she seeks treatment (finally!).

In the end, “The Bollywood Bride” is a cozy love story, but ultimately not a great way to learn about Indian culture. There is the wedding taking place in the background, and Ria’s interactions with her aunt and uncle in America, so it could prove interesting and educational for someone totally new to Indian culture. Dev’s other books, which are also set in an Indian-American context, promise a more in-depth look into the culture, so I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon.

How to handle your inner critic

It’s December. You spent a whole month slaving away on a manuscript that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you can’t wait to get out to the world…up until you start rereading it.

In writing, as with any profession, it’s important to be able to accept criticism of your work and use it to your benefit. Editing is crucial part of the writing process, after all, and to do that you have to be able to approach your work with a critical eye. It’s admirable, healthy even, to be approach your work with the intention of improving it.

What’s not healthy is that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re work is terrible and you’re terrible and you should just bury yourself neck deep in the woods somewhere as penance. We call it the inner critic, but that’s really misleading. A critic evaluates. This little dude is just cruel. And more often than not, he’s a liar too, because burying yourself in the woods never solves anything.

That voice (James Chartrand at “The Write Life” refers to it as the inner demon) is essentially the manifestations of our insecurities. When we allow that voice to be takeover the megaphone in our mind, so to speak, it warps the way we see ourselves and our work. When we think negative thoughts, we feel badly, and when we feel that way, it becomes the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Work that we loved two days ago seems ridiculous. Language that was poetic last week becomes pretentious and cheesy.

How to handle your inner critic when it's at its most obnoxious

When you start to hear and recognize that demonic voice (because sometimes we don’t recognize it until it’s been talking for a while), you have to nip it in the bud right then and there. Once you’ve been able to do that, revisit the positive thoughts feelings you had when you were working on the piece earlier. If you liked it last week, it can’t possibly be utter garbage today. Try to move away from the piece emotionally and view it in a more objective way, so that if you do find that there are areas that need improvement, you’re at least not taking that on as reflection of your own self-worth or your skill as a creative actor.

This is also true if you’re getting back comments from an editor or a beta reader. Just because they don’t like parts of your piece, doesn’t mean that the whole thing is terrible or that you are terrible. Even if they hate the whole thing, that’s okay too. Not everything is going to be a home run every time, and not everyone is going to like every thing you do. How many people tore into the “Twilight” series as everything that’s wrong with modern fantasy fiction? And yet the series was wildly successful, and Stephanie Meyers herself is living the high life – she’s written more books that have been able to piggyback off of “Twilight’s” success, and now she has her own film production company.

Clearly, the negative opinions of others do not necessarily equal failure. So why should your own opinions hold any more weight? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.

If you find that you are simply too invested in the piece and it’s really wearing on you emotionally, put it aside. There’s no law that says you have to publish something withing 20 days of writing it. Leave it alone for a couple months, and then come back to it. Not only will probably be able to edit it better, you won’t feel like your personal integrity is attached to it – which, you know, it’s really not.

What advice do you have for dealing with the demonic voice in your mind? Share below!

No character? No problem! Four tips to writing great characters

Everyone’s got that thing about writing that drives them up the wall. For me, it’s the plot: I can write dialogue and character descriptions all day long, as long as none of them have to actually do anything. This, as you can imagine, is a problem.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the other problem: you have a riveting plot riddled with characters that move through it like zombies on a full stomach.

Yes, Ben, that's our topic of the day!
Yes, Ben, that’s our topic of the day!

The truth is, there is no plot without characters. People can sit around doing nothing, but things cannot happen without people to do them. So if characters have been a pain for you, you’re in luck because I’m here to help!

Character Tip 1: Plan it out

In “How to Write and Sell Your Novel,” thriller writer R. Karl Largent says that before he begins writing, he creates distinct personalities and background stories for each of his characters. Even the most minor characters who only appear in a single scene get this treatment (although if you ask me, that’s overkill. Then again, what do I know? I’m not the bestselling author here.).

As I’m creating the character profile, I make a point not to rely to heavily on character tropes, especially those that I believe to be either harmful or unrealistic. (“Magical minority,” “evil for the heck of it,” and “Mr. Angst” are a few of the ones that really make me cringe.) Creating the profile also helps you track the character’s behavior, so that you can be sure that your character acts in a manner that makes sense within the universe you’ve created. If you’re not feeling very inspired or feel like you can’t get away from predictable tropes, try scrolling through illustrations and artwork on Tumblr. There are some very talented artists out there, and being able to picture a character in your mind’s eye can help you figure out how they act and react, how they speak, their mannerisms – all those little things that take a character and turn them into a person.

Character Tip 2: Make them matter to each other

To put it simply: if the characters in your story don’t care about each other, why should your reader care about them?

In my experience, the best novels have stories that create and build strong relationships between the characters. It’s why the death of Fred at the end of the “Harry Potter” series is so devastating: not only have we as readers grown to love him, but we know that he has family and friends who love him and will grieve for him in the world of the story. It’s why we care about the fate of Fix-It Felix when he goes looking for Ralph – even though the two are set up as antagonists, they have a relationship that is integral to the story. It makes sense that Felix would look for Ralph, and because Felix is invested, so are we.

Damn straight. I'm still salty about this, okay?
Damn straight. I’m still salty about this, okay?

As writer Chuck Wendig puts it:

Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds.

Character Tip 3: The more things seem to change…

After you’ve built a character profile based on Tip 1, you have to figure out how that profile is going to change by the end of your novel. Because if your character stays the same from the beginning of the book to the end, why’d you write the thing in the first place?

Writer Brian Klems gives a detailed breakdown of how to make your character grow and change throughout your novel, but to break it down: the plot has to have a significant, noticeable, and logical impact on your characters. Harry Potter goes from sweet, naive little boy, to angry, hot-headed teenager, to focused, strategic, slightly older teenager over the course of seven years, in response to the twists and turns of the plot. It makes sense because his growth follows the patterns of the plot itself. In the same way, your characters have to respond to the plot in ways that make sense given the character profile you’ve created.

Character Tip 4: Everyone is special in his or her own way

It’s a lesson we learned from that lovable purple dinosaur and it’s just as applicable to fictional characters as it is to real people. Your character can’t just be good at something, they have to be the best. This is a piece of advice that comes from story consultant James Bonnet, who writes, “Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements. Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king.” The quintessential makes for a more interesting story, Bonnet insists.

He goes on to add:

The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.

I know, I know: didn’t I just say that I hate tropes? And isn’t the quintessential character practically the definition of a trope?

Yes and no. Yes, the idea of the chosen one, the strongest villain, the strongest superhero, the superbly intelligent detective, are all examples of tried and tested tropes. But the trope itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, it became a trope for a reason. It’s how you apply the trope that matters. The Chosen One has to face some kind of moral dilemma that calls into question his status. The super-smart detective has to stumble on a case, start to worry that she’s losing her edge, before finally solving it. That’s how you keep your character, and by extension, your story, interesting and unpredictable.

The five fatal flaws in fiction writing – NaNoWriMo2016

Hello quibblers! In celebration of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be shelving the book reviews and media commentary to focus on the craft of writing. Hopefully, aspiring NaNoWriMo-ers will find this information helpful as they write and, ultimately, rewrite their stories.

In this installment, we’ll be discussing an oft-asked question by writers old and new: what are the flaws that I should avoid when writing?

I did some research, and there are the five flaws in fiction writing that I think writers should be most aware of:

Telling instead of showing

This is a crucial part of all kinds of writing, but especially in fiction. You are the reader’s lone guide through the story you’ve made, and as vivid as it may seem in your own head, that won’t translate to your reader if you continously tell your reader about the story instead of show them what is happening. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing “Maria had always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, but lately she’d been cold and distant.” Instead, describe a moment where Maria goes to her mother about something and the mom is unenthusiastic and unengaged. Show Maria being heartbroken, feeling that her mother is ignoring her, uninterested in her. That will translate to your readers so much better.

Troping your story to death

Look, there’s a reason why tropes exist, and it’s because they’re familiar. They make sense to us. And it’s fine to use tropes within your story if you feel that it’s what the story needs. What’s not fine is for every character in your story to fit in some kind of trope, and for every storyline to follow the well-worn paths of those before it. If you’re motivated to write a novel (in one month!) then it’s probably because you have a unique story in you that you want to get out. And yeah, maybe it follows the traditions of its genre, but it shouldn’t be an amalgam of everything that tradition has to offer. Think outside the box a little. Throw a wrench in there that’s atypical to the style of stories in that genre. Flip a trope on its head and see what happens. Sometimes, little things like that executed well can make a story stand out from others in the genre.

But! Be extra careful with tropes that are clearly racial or sexist in nature: the Ice Princess, the wise old tribal leader who speaks in cryptic imagery, the nagging housewife, etc.

Uncle doesn't want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.
Uncle doesn’t want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.

Pacing

This is one that I wouldn’t have considered if I was just writing this post off the top of my head, but pacing is actually crucial to a story. In many ways, pacing is your way of manipulating time within your story. In “Writer’s Store,” Gerry Visco advises writers to look at their story scene by scene (so basically, storyboard it) and see how the scenes fit together. Are some scenes to fast, to slow? Does the sequencing need to be changed to make more sense? Is the climax followed by an immediate drop in the action, or is there a more nuanced slow-down in the pace? These are all things you can see better when you take the story apart scene-by-scene.

Remember, too, that a story doesn’t have to move at a break-neck speed to be good. A lot of the advice online about pacing your story discusses speed, but it’s important to give your characters (and your readers!) moments to breath, collect themselves, and get ready for the next adventure.

Inconsistency

There are lots of types of inconsistency in writing, but the ones you really want to watch out for are the kinds that directly impact your characters or your plot. Things like inconsistent characterization (is he a level-headed thinker or an impulsive fire-cracker? Because he can’t be both.) and warped timelines can really throw a wrench in your reader’s concentration. In fact, many authors start their writing with a timeline of events and a character description for each person in their story so that they can stay on track.

One-dimensional characters

This one almost goes without saying, but it’s still worth saying because it happens all the time. Especially with secondary characters, it’s easy to for you to forget about them as your hero trudges on through your story. But every character in your story should serve some purpose, and that purpose will not be truly fulfilled if we only ever see one aspect of them.

This happens a lot with villains, too, where their only goal is chaos for the sake of chaos, evil for the sake of evil. The villain in your story should have a purpose, something that drives them to do what they’re doing, and that purpose can’t just be “I want everything to go to hell!” Make us understand where they’re coming from, why they’ve chosen this path. The X-Men in particular does a good job with this, where although Magneto’s goals (and his methods for achieving them) are obviously horrific, we can see why he is the way he is. Although the trauma he’s experienced doesn’t justify his actions, it does shed light on his motivations, and gives a logic to his refusal to join the X-Men.

That’s my take on some of the major flaws in fiction writing. What do you guys think of these flaws, and what are some you think writers should avoid? Share in the comments below!

So much for man’s best friend: A review of “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis

Several months ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me the book “Fifteen Dogs” as a present. Unforgivably, I did not get around to reading it until fairly recently despite the fact that I was instantly intrigued by the book’s premise.

In “Fifteen Dogs,” Canadian writer Andre Alexis imagines a world where the Greek gods of old walk among us. Two, Apollo and Hermes (the god of music and poetry and the god of transitions and boundaries, respectfully), take an interest in fifteen dogs who have the extreme misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – a veterinary clinic in Toronto. Apollo bets Hermes that dogs would be miserable if given human intelligence, while Hermes is convinced that at least one will die happy.

It’s a dog eat dog world

You can already guess that this does not go well for the dogs in question, who wake up in the middle of the night at the clinic and decide to escape their lives of servitude to carve out their own destinies. Over the course of the book, the dogs do what we humans did – develop a language, form a societal hierarchy and a culture, and, eventually, get into fights about what the language and culture should entail.

So far, so good. I mean, that’s how our species evolved, and look at us now! Sitting at the top of the food chain, lord of all that we see, unimaginable technology at our fingertips. Granted, we mostly use it to maim and/or kill each other and destroy the very environment from which we derive our needs, but let’s not get to bogged down in the details here.

Fairly quickly conflict arises, as some dogs seek to preserve their inherit “dog-ness” by refusing to acknowledge or develop the intelligence that was thrust upon them, while others want to see how far they can take it. One in particular, Prince, who develops poetry (it’s very nice, and believably doggish), quickly becomes a target of the top dog (hah!) and his allies. They are then forced to pursue alternative paths and find themselves unable to survive without the care of a pack or a human, and at the same time unable to ignore the new instincts that challenge and conflict with the lower status of pets.

I know humans suck, but still…

It’s not surprising that things go downhill so quickly. What is surprising is the way Alexis portrays dogs, even from the beginning, as being suspicious of and even hostile to humans. A few remain loyal to their current owners, and most of them have fond memories and a genuine love for their original owners, the ones they knew as puppies. There’s actually a very heartwarming scene towards the end where Hermes makes up partially for all the trouble he’s caused by rewarding one dog with a vision of the child he’d adored, but it stands in stark contrast to how dogs view humans in the rest of the book. At best, it seems, we are a necessary nuisance to dogs, performing the functions of the “alpha” of their pack, but not inspiring any more love than your average boss or teacher does. At worst we are vicious, cruel, unpredictable creatures who are best avoided.

Granted, that last sentence is a pretty apt description for humanity at large, but it was surprising to see it so clearly articulated from the dogs’ perspective. I expected more of the “man’s best friend” view of dogs, where their loyalty and sweetness is contrasted with our fickle nature. I’m not particularly fond of dogs myself – the small ones are adorable but I’m pretty sure that one day the bigger ones are going to turn on us and decide that fresh meat is better than packaged dog food – but even I was like “geez, I thought you liked us!”

Overall, I really enjoyed “Fifteen Dogs.” It’s well-written, it’s different, and it really makes you think about why we as humans use the gift of intelligence so cruelly. If you have a dog, however, you may find it very disconcerting. At a minimum, you’ll think twice before you ask your dog to roll over again.

Is writer’s block a real thing?

You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?

That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.

Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go,  you’re right back where you started from.

Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.
Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.

So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)

In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”

[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]

When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.

What’s a gal to do?

Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.

The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.

Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.

James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.

So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.

What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!

 

Color, magic, love – “Furthermore” by Tahereh Mafi quashes it all

A few months ago I interviewed bestselling writer Tahereh Mafi for The Tempest, so I was really excited when her agent offered me a copy of her new book, “Furthermore,” for review.

I wasn’t completely sure what to make of the book at first. I haven’t done much fantasy reading outside of the Discworld series for a while now, and Furthermore is aimed at middle-school children, not adults. So I approached the book with a sense of trepidation.

A land of spoilers lies past this barrier…

The book follows 12-year-old Alice Queensmeadow and her frenemy Oliver Newbanks as they leave the magical but orderly land of Ferenwood to search for her father, who has been missing for three years. Oliver, who had been assigned to search for him, reveals that her father is trapped in the land of Furthermore, the dark, threatening sister land to Ferenwood.

We spend quite a bit of time in Ferenwood at the start of the book, with Tahereh really taking her time to build a beautiful world of color and magic. In Ferenwood, magic is an inherent characteristic, and the more color you have in your person – blue hair, brown skin, bright eyes – the more magic you have. This is a problem for Alice, who has no color. Of course, you an also purchase magic, but again, this is out of Alice’s reach. Meanwhile, the people around her, particularly Oliver and her father, have impressive powers.

Flowers, light, shiny bangles;  that’s the world we start out in in Ferenwood, and it stands in stark contrast to the much darker and chaotic world of Furthermore that Alice ventures into. As she and Oliver travel from village to village, trying (and often failing) to stay alive and unharmed as they search for her father, Tahereh unravels the inner workings of the preteen psyche.

It’s hard to be a teen

To me, the most poignant issue Alice faces is her insecurity about her relationship with her family. She believes her mother doesn’t love her, and her brothers are so unconnected to her they don’t even warrant names. This is what drives her to find her father – aside from her love for him, their loving relationship is essentially a relic from a happier time, childhood.

It’s a concept that resonates. Perhaps the most difficult thing about the transition from child to adult (i.e. adolescence) is the warping of the parent-child relationship. You want to be your own person, pushing against their definitions and expectations just because it comes from them (something Alice does with her father, but let’s not get into that here). At the same time, you want their approval, their love, their affection, but feel unable to ask for it. The relationship that came so easily and naturally at five, six, seven, eight, seems to disappear almost completely by 11 or 12. Replacing it with something new is probably the biggest challenge child and parent will ever face, and that is exactly what Alice is trying to do in Furthermore. 

This, to me, is where Tahereh really excels. As an adult, I know that despite everything, Alice’s mother does love her, and it’s important, particularly to the book’s intended audience, to really demonstrate that.

How dark is dark enough?

Aside from this underlying theme, I found Furthermore to be compellingly dark and yet somehow not completely satisfying. There’s so much buildup in the sense of danger that Tahereh builds. There’s the cannibalistic nature of Furthermore’s residents, the very real threat of imprisonment, the murky and mysterious “Elders” that seem to playing with the fates of Alice, Oliver, and possibly her father.

And yet, it doesn’t really pay off. As much danger as Alice and Oliver face, there’s never any question that they will find her father. At least not for me. For the story to have any emotional resonance, they have to find her father, otherwise why are we even here? I don’t know if this is just me and my expectations of plot development, but for me the question is never whether Alice will find her father, the question is whether or not they’ll be able to get out. In the end, though, that turns out to be incredibly easy. Frankly, a little too easy. Apparently no one in Furthermore has heard of the concept of prison guards, and those elders aren’t in as much control as certain mysterious creatures would like you to believe.

Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed Alice’s journey, I ended up finding myself more interested in Oliver and his first trip to Furthermore, or even that of Alice’s father when he was a kid. I get the sense that where the prospect of actual death never really looms over Alice and Oliver (in comparison to say, the final showdown between Harry Potter and Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets, as an age-appropriate example), it may have certainly loomed over a young boy entering a dangerous world for the first time with no supervision or help. Tahereh is clearly setting up for a sequel (rightly so, since I believe Furthermore will quickly become a bestseller), but what I’d really like to see is a prequel. Perhaps that’s something she’ll consider down the line as she further expands on the origins of her magical worlds.

Overall, I’m excited to see where Furthermore ends up, and I think that Tahereh has a winning formula here. It’s the kind of book that you can buy for your niece, read yourself, and then have some really interesting discussions about.

The truth is underrated: A review of “The White Lie” by Andrea Gillies

Some time ago I read a book called “The White Lie” by Scottish writer Andrea Gillies. I want to write about it because it was a very interesting, if not completely successful, book.

The thing that intrigued me about The White Lie is that it’s written from the perspective of a dead person, Michael, and spans decades and generations. The book actually starts with a family tree, and to me this is like a flashing neon sign that says “THIS BOOK WILL BE CONFUSING.” And it was – several people who are referenced are dead, and the family, a noble Scottish clan whose patriarch lives in a manor dating to, one assumes, medieval times, has a tendency to recycle names. Thus Ottilie is Michael’s mother and also his great-great-aunt, or possibly his great-grandmother (see what I mean?), but generally this doesn’t prevent you from following along.

Spoilers in wait beyond this point

The plot goes thusly (major spoiler alert!!!): Michael is killed by his aunt in a boat accident – she hits him with an oar and he drowns. (It’s not clear what’s going on with his aunt exactly. She’s very intelligent but lacks basic social skills and acts like a 10-year-old, so maybe something on the autism spectrum? We’re not told, and it seems the family has not tried to figure out exactly what it is). Anyway, the family, in an attempt to protect the aunt from prosecution and save themselves from scandal, tell a white lie – that Michael ran away from home. But Ghost!Michael can now see everything that has happened in and around the loch where he was killed; memories of ugly past events from his family’s unfortunate history. As it turns out, there is a long list of white lies and cover-ups and secrets that family members have been keeping from one another, and Ghost!Michael sinks into every one of them until you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, until you wonder whether Michael was actually killed in the boat accident or if he survived that but died in some other way at some other time.

If you must haunt, this isn't a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.
If you must haunt, this isn’t a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.

That aspect of the book’s structure is really interesting and to me, quite unique – the book goes from a calm if depressing certainty, that Michael is dead and his aunt killed him, and becomes more and more uncertain until you reach a peak, a crescendo, where everything is true and everything is false and you start to doubt the basic premise of the story, that Michael is really dead. But as the story winds down things become more and more clear, and one incident in particular, the incident that Gillies certainly wants us to think of as the starting point, becomes exceedingly obvious. That’s part of the reason why I enjoyed the book – by the time Gillies is ready to reveal to us this major point, most readers will have already guessed it, so she doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She knows, we know, but it has to be said to break the hold it has over us as readers and over the family itself. This is where the book stumbles, because ultimately the family’s secret stays a secret to some of its own members, and so the pressure of the book is never fully released. It may be more realistic that some secrets are always kept, but it’s not as artistic.

Another point I didn’t like was that the Gillies, while otherwise successful at painting three-dimensional characters, resorts to a black-and-white characterization between Ottillie, Michael’s mother, and her twin sister Joan. Joan becomes a kind of evil twin to Ottillie despite the fact that Gillies recognizes Ottillie’s personal flaws. Yet Joan is portrayed as vindictive and mean-spirited in a way that Ottillie never is, even though, in my view, she is just as bad if less obvious. Perhaps it’s just that we cannot trust Michael’s narration – she is his mother after all, and he’s dead. But even so, Ottillie’s ultimate explanation for some of her choices, which I won’t share here, left me feeling disappointed in her character and even turned off by her. I felt that we were expected to buy into Joan being this bad person and Ottillie having somehow been the victim of her sister’s admittedly nasty attitude, but I just couldn’t accept that.

Ultimately, The White Lie is a book that feels familiar while at the same time going beyond conventional plot forms, and I greatly appreciated that. Definitely a great read and one I would recommend to those looking for something out of the box.